Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Embracing CHSPE Allows a Pathway to School Reform

The California High School Proficiency Exam, CHSPE, which is lawfully equivalent to a high school diploma for any purpose in California, serves as the linchpin for comprehensive, yet low-cost, school reform in California.  It accomplishes this through three critical benefits:
  1. The CHSPE serves as graduation insurance for students as schools increase rigor.
  2. The CHSPE helps implement an Early College, which improves college success.
  3. The CHSPE allows students to take courses they want to take, which reduces dropouts.
Schools want to increase rigor. For example, Algebra 2 or three years of science could be graduation requirements. However, the very real risk of increasing dropouts makes this effort very risky. For a principal or superintendent to bet the future on the words of pundits or a few researchers claiming that more rigor also will magically reduce dropouts is foolhardy, but if a safety net presented itself that also enhances the transition of students to community colleges or vocations, then the vigorous deployment of not only rigorous courses, but also career-oriented courses with extra support for students starting community colleges could proceed reversibly. Reform need not mimic Cortez's burning of his ships. The California High School Proficiency Exam, CHSPE, offers each student graduation insurance, and therefore supplies an often ignored mechanism in gaining community support in reforming schools.

In brief, CHSPE-based reform helps solve the problems of many courses being too easy, students needing remedial courses in college, students not completing college, and high drop-out rates, with the possibility of improved API scores.

Increasing Rigor Flexibly

a. The high school must request a waiver from its district for added graduation requirements for incoming ninth graders.  For example, while different pathways to rigor exist, many graduation requirement sets would include either three years of both science and math or statements like Chemistry, Biology, Physics or Geometry, Algebra 2, Pre-Calculus or Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Statistics.  The requirement set could be modified each year, and hold for the entering class.
b. Similar to colleges stating graduation requirements for entering students, a high school would notify eighth graders that its requirements will be different than the standard in the district. Eighth graders would have the option of starting at another high school, if space is available. They also would be told that they could take the CHSPE in tenth grade and graduate early or stay in school with a special schedule, if they so chose after passing the CHSPE.

c. Graduation requirements could be modified for each entering class as feedback on student success and difficulties and results on increased rigor became available.  In particular, the choices that students make after taking the CHSPE and later, the actual results of those decisions would determine the effectiveness of this approach to high school reform.

CHSPE and Student Decision-Making

d.  Eight and ninth grade students would be informed that those who complete Algebra and two years of high school math strongly perform well on CHSPE and graduate early. Those who neglect studying flounder and struggle through four years of high school.

e. The CHSPE would voluntarily be taken in February and June during tenth grade. With a cost of nearly $100, students would be careful in taking it. There is no legal reason for a school to pay for the CHSPE. However, organizations such as a PTA could partially subsidize the fee.

f. Students who pass the CHSPE would enjoy these options:
  • Simply stay in high school and graduate at the end of 12th grade.
  • Graduate immediately with family permission.  This would allow a full community college course load with fees. However, student failure is likely. Early high school withdrawal could be effectively discouraged by the obvious benefits of the other choices. However, early withdrawal would serve students who want to start a non- or low-technical trade program or possibly those who seek a certificate program from a community college. 
  • Complete, but do not file, school withdrawal papers.  Students would gain these benefits:
1. Able to take two community college classes without fees
2. Attend high school on a reduced schedule with study halls for college classes
3. Reduced schedule could include focused courses such as robotics or drama 
4. Reduced schedule could simply be independent study courses supporting college classes
5. Enjoy food and activities such as sports, which would be inappropriate for those NCAA-bound
  • Students, who graduate early, would be welcome to reapply for admittance. There is no need to penalize students for making unfortunate choices that could be mitigated.
  • Instruction in 11th and 12th grade would operate at higher levels than currently employed. Students who couldn't or wouldn't meet the standards could always opt-out by passing the CHSPE or transferring to another high school, if remediation proved ineffective.
  • Students who cannot pass the CHSPE would be served as current students are. However, with, hopefully, fewer numbers they could be identified and focused on better than today.
The Opposite of Cynicism

In could be said that encouraging CHSPE is an improper way of increasing a school's graduation rate or decreasing it's dropout rate, but the opposite has been far worse for decades.  Although aware, very few California school officials tell parents and young adults of the CHSPE's availability because bodies are dollars in ADA districts.  Arguments against the CHSPE are self-serving, while arguments for the CHSPE are informational and grant options to students and parents.  It young adults another way, perhaps their only way, to succeed.  Explaining the benefits and disadvantages of the CHSPE is professional and proper.

In Basic Aid districts, not ADA districts, a student leaving school is close to revenue-neutral.

Note: CAHSEE vis a vis CHSPE

The CAHSEE is a necessary condition for awarding a high school diploma, as set by state law. The CHSPE is sufficient to be recognized as a diploma for ANY PURPOSE under state law.  The CAHSEE is easier than CHSPE because its tests lower level math standards.  In addition, the CHSPE includes an essay examination in its English componenent.

Let Successful CHSPE Students Walk in Graduation

Yes, the CHSPE is easier to earn than a district high school diploma, and from an initial, gut reaction, letting CHSPE students walk in graduation doesn't seem fair because they have accomplished less than most of the other students, but consider the advantages to all parties, and a 180 may be warranted!

Positive Reasons to Encourage Students to Walk

Don't let the best be the enemy of the better.  With 25% of students dropping out of school, it may be that most students taking and passing the CHSPE have a close to 50% chance of not graduating otherwise.  Walking through graduation may be their only motivation to even continue with their education. The CHSPE is an educational compromise. Passing it can be joyous; not a moment of regret. Save criticism for dropouts; especially since CHSPE students frequently plan to continue their studies at a community college. Students and their families should be legitimately proud of earning the CHSPE, and remember they are the foundation of education - they're called taxpayers and voters.

Early graduation is not rejection.  A school administration need not think that a student taking the CHSPE is rejecting them, the students are simply rejecting two more years of conventional school after completing eleven or twelve years.  In short, school leaders shouldn't take CHSPE results as reflecting poorly on them.  Passing CHSPE can be considered a vindication - students have succeeded early and are ready to move on; albeit not perfectly.  They shouldn't be punished for leaving the nest; nor should administers think they failed.

Motivate ninth and tenth graders.  The prospect of graduating school after 10th grade may help ninth and tenth graders try harder in math and language classes.  Seeing happy people move on in a graduation ceremony, not a second class disappearance, serves as a powerful image.  Hearing other students moan about not knowing enough math to pass the CHSPE will also have effects.  In Alt Ed, juniors perform better than sophomores because they see the end of school and the pleasures of walking in graduation.  The resulting success may even encourage them to stay!

Discourage pettiness.  Do many hard-working honor/AP students and their parents seriously claim that "the normal students" don't deserve to be in graduation?  Surely some do, but the complaints are ignored.  Similarly, would normal graduates strongly state that those CHSPE students have no right to walk in our procession?  It's absurd to believe they would.  Should administrators be petty for them?  Letting holders of CHSPE certificates walk brings joy with little cost to students who have been in the system for eleven years. In their mind, they have paid their dues to ed code. Advising that they stay in school is one thing.  Denying them a small benefit of completing state requirements truly seems inappropriate.

Acknowledge the academic truth.  How many at-risk graduates could pass the CHSPE anyway?  Many retake the CAHSEE several times and CHSPE is far more difficult.  Are conventional at-risk graduates actually more academically qualified?  Where's the evidence of this?  To err towards hurting people in this situation seems cruelly unwise.

Increase morale of instructors and staff.  Teaching young adults who don't want to be in school yields poor learning results.  Below Basic on CST's after a year of work is neither an honor for teachers nor students. Teachers may complain, but they also want to keep challenging students in Alt Ed. CHSPE students are in the highest quartile in Alt Ed. Yes, they should be encouraged to stay in school, but denied walking in graduation because they are more talented than other Alt Ed students?  Upon reflection, most teachers would praise walking and the benefits it indirectly grants to their classrooms.

Embrace the CHSPE.  There are many incredible and surprising advantages of students passing the CHSPE.  Setting the stage for increasing it's deployment is enhanced by letting students walk in graduation.

Legal Considerations to Let Students Walk

California law states that the CHSPE certificate is equivalent to a high school diploma FOR ANY PURPOSE to agencies operating under California law.  On the other hand, LEA's (e.g. school districts) have large sway in making policy under many precedents.  In short, parents could sue to allow their child to walk with reasonable grounds for success.  However, the proceedings will be messy and expensive and unproductive.  The issue really is just being able to walk in graduation.  It is simply too small an issue for an administration to fight considering the text of the state law.  Where is the compelling school need to circumvent state law?

To count requirements twice can be construed as an effort to violate state law deliberately.  A school may state that a diploma and other requirements such as community service and senior projects are required to walk in graduation ceremonies.  This may seem reasonable, but a diploma is not issued until community service and a senior project are accepted.  They are requirements for a diploma, not graduation!  Where is the compelling school need to circumvent state law? In short, applying non-diploma requirements suggests that parents who sue should seek monetary damages from individuals, not just the right to walk from a school or district.

Precedent has been set for letting students not complete requirements in courses, but receive credits and grades of A with a boost in GPA.  It is said that this practice is unofficial, but it is publicly recognized and accepted by administrators, with the caveat that by law teachers have this right in grading. However, these grades are used by the administration in boosting GPA scores that are used in school awards. This makes them official, not just tolerated. This is NOT a gray area as a result, but subjects schools to charges of hypocrisy, which undermines any LEA's arguments on consistency or integrity.  Currently, many teachers award grades in AP courses based solely on AP test results. Classwork and participation are irrelevant.  In short, the AP test is to AP course requirements as the CHSPE test is to high school requirements.  If a school wants to argue that top students deserve special treatment while at-risk students should be treated brusquely . . . lots-of-luck!  It is this argument that two lawyers who have reviewed this blog state would force a judge to rule in favor students. Almost without question, the official GPA boost from faulty AP grades is far more damaging to a school's environment than letting CHSPE students walk. To argue otherwise is obtuse.

Walking in graduation has been denied on behavioral grounds.  For example, getting drunk at grad night disqualifies a student.  Passing CHSPE is a positive event.  In the past, pregnant woman and convicts who have served time, were not allowed to walk.  Now they do, often with strong school and community praise. Is passing CHSPE sui generis? No. On its face, it is simply absurd to deny CHSPE students the opportunity to walk.